How to help laid-off theater employees and artists pay the rent

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Tomorrow is rent day for many folks who’ve taken financial hits this month due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, I wanted to highlight this GoFundMe campaign while you still have time to consider donating; it’s reportedly ending after today. The page is raising funds for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s non-union hourly workers, who were laid off via a late-night mass email on March 19. The affected workers include box-office and front-of-house staff along with many members of the facilities and production teams; the organizers of the GoFundMe campaign, who were among those laid off, say nearly 100 jobs were eliminated.

I’ve reviewed two versions of the email by which these CST employees learned their fates; apart from being sent and signed by different department heads, the text was identical, acknowledging that the storm of circumstances related to COVID-19 had forced a postponement of the company’s upcoming production of As You Like It and the touring engagement of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Taming of the Shrew.

“Unfortunately, this means that we are forced to reduce our workforce, including the elimination of your current role with Chicago Shakespeare effective immediately,” the email continued. “You will be fully compensated for all work for which you were scheduled through March 29, 2020.”

Strikingly, the communication offered no assurances that the affected employees—some of whom I’m told had worked at Chicago Shakes for over a dozen years—will be asked to reapply for their jobs when the theater is able to reopen. A spokesperson for the theater didn’t respond when I inquired about the number of jobs eliminated and whether those roles will be restored, and whether any salaried staff or executives had taken pay cuts during the closure.

We’re likely to see more such layoffs in the coming days. Last night, L.A.’s Center Theatre Group announced it’s suspending all programming until the fall and furloughing half of its staff, with the rest facing pay cuts. The postponed productions include Rajiv Joseph’s King James—a world-premiere co-production with Steppenwolf, where it was set to play first. Steppenwolf hadn’t announced any moves as of early Tuesday morning on King James, which is scheduled to begin performances here May 7, but CTG’s decision doesn’t augur well for its prospects.

I’ve yet to see any Chicago theaters make a move as far-reaching as CTG’s; outwardly, at least, most seem to be operating in the hope that shows scheduled to open in May will be able to go forward as planned. But if productions into May, June and July end up being canceled, it’s likely we’ll be seeing more GoFundMe campaigns for laid-off theater employees. (If you see any popping up, please let me know so I can signal-boost.)

And we haven’t even touched on the artists contracted for all of the canceled productions. I’m told that many of the nonprofit theaters that were forced to close productions early three weeks ago or have had to cancel future productions in the weeks since—including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Court, and Victory Gardens, among others—committed to paying their casts and crews their full contracted fees. But I can’t help but wonder how long that’s sustainable if cancellations continue into the summer.

Union actors and stage managers who get their health insurance through Actors’ Equity Association are also dealing with what I hear is a frustratingly limited amount of information about what the lost work weeks mean for their coverage. And many of us (your correspondent included) are just getting started figuring out what the new unemployment assistance provisions in the CARES Act will mean for freelance workers.

I mentioned the ad hoc Chicago Artists Relief Fund in a previous newsletter, but I want to also point to a couple of stalwart organizations that provide assistance to individuals in the arts. The Actors Fund has offices in Chicago as well as New York and L.A. (and isn’t just for actors). And locally, Season of Concern has been offering direct emergency assistance to Chicago-area theater artists for more than three decades. If your income has remained stable during the crisis and you have a few dollars to spare, please consider donating to one of these efforts.


Thanks for reading! This is the free edition of Storefront Rebellion, a newsletter about Chicago theater by Kris Vire. Send tips and feedback to kris@krisvire.com, and if you know someone you think would enjoy this newsletter, feel free to forward this to a friend.